Interview with Tantra Bensko

Interview by Nadia Brown

Where are you from?

I’m from Indiana, a beautiful place out in the country, with gorgeous sunrises and sunsets, deer eating the crab apples, a colorful sycamore tree by the creek, its roots exposed and rocks underneath them. I moved away from Indiana when I started college and lived all over the place, am settled in Berkeley now. But I set Floating on Secrets in Indiana, equally near Indianapolis to where I lived, though the area has filled in more now than it used to be.

Tell us your latest news?

I won the Bronze medal for my previous book, Encore: A Contemporary Love Story of Hypnotic Abduction, in the eLit awards category of Thrillers/Suspense/Mystery.

When and why did you begin writing?

I wanted to be a novelist even when I was a child. I was inspired by the greats like William Faulkner, who wrote about people resembling my Alabama relatives, so my novel manuscript in high school was based on those pioneers — from all Mama’s tales about them. I felt it would be a gift to the world if I could create something that would be meaningful to readers. Beginning with Faulkner’s POV innovation, I continued to be inspired by deeper and deeper experimentation in the books I sought out. I decided to throw out the default ideas of what society must be, what limits we have, what a narrative must be.

I started to take my writing seriously when I won the Academy of American Poets award when I was an undergraduate and the other people who entered at our university were much older and further along. I was shocked to go to the awards event, and they called my name to present it to. I felt my life unfurl before me.

My mother encouraged me in all the arts. Growing up in Indiana was beautiful, and the friends I saw other than at school were mostly trees and animals. I might go all summer without seeing any other kids other than maybe my cousins when we visited Mama’s Alabama homestead. I felt the authors of the books I had were the people I shared my life with, therefore. I wanted readers to have my books to connect with in that way, too.

What inspired you to write Floating on Secrets? 

It started with the image that came to me of a woman in a float tank discovering she’s not alone. I had taken an interest in writing a New Adult novel and wanted to place it in Indiana where there are many readers of Romance, as I felt I had some understanding of them. There’s a kind of earnest goodness. I wanted to provide models for readers of ways they could explore consciousness without needing to resort to mind-expanding drugs. It’s a Hero’s Journey in which Flair goes into the other world of her subconscious, which is connected to everything, and brings back visions to benefit the tribe.

Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp? 

I’d like them to follow the arcs, like Austin learning to relax his need to be overly perfect in his body at the expense of prioritizing his music.

Are experiences based on someone you know, or events in your own life? 

I did float in a tank in a small-town woman’s back yard once long ago and saw visions. I used to go to Philosophy Club meetings at a pizza parlor (in the novel it’s the Jung Club.) And the Narrow Men are based on a young man I met in Berkeley one day. We ended up playing for an hour with his little toy trucks.

What books have most influenced your life most? 

Maybe books about nature, social engineering, spiritual exercises, going beyond the usual limits of what humans are expected to be able to do, psychology, the craft of writing, health and such. But if you mean fiction, well, the children’s books My Side of the Mountain and That Quail Robert influenced my life of immersion in nature.

What book are you reading now? 

I’m reading We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler. It references something real in the world of research that I knew about because of my father, who studied at Indiana University with a professor who raised his son with a chimp. That happens in this book and it’s a wonderful novel.

I’m also thrilled with many of my students’ stories. I teach fiction writing classes with UCLA Extension Writing Program and Writers.

Who is your favorite author and what is it that really strikes you about their work? 

The contemporary author, Michelle Jaffe, is my favorite. Her YA Chick Lit books are hilarious. Her convoluted, complex adult crime novels show a brilliant mind that I admire greatly. I’ve read everything she wrote, but she’s kind of disappeared. So, since there’s so much more to read by Phyllis Whitney, I could name her too – she was a Gothic Romance author, and I studied that genre intensely to write Encore and Floating on Secrets. She lived to 104! Can you imagine? I love the beauty of her settings, the art and flowers and cliffs and chiffon.

What are your current projects? 

I’m creating an online class teaching when to break sentences, paragraphs, scenes and chapters. As far as entertainment – I’m finishing up writing a Horror screenplay called Monster Project about the dangers of projection. A young woman named Magdalyna is an Animal Rescue worker, a competent professional woman who is overly compassionate and trusting, swayed by her infatuation with a younger man who is the leader of a sort of an absurd gang of misfits. The miscreants don’t have an easy way to survive, and they take advantage of people to do so. They want to feel good about themselves, though, so they project onto the people who are really just doing their jobs, like their parents, teachers, policemen, the man who made them leave this house because they didn’t pay rent. The kids see them as their enemies in a dramatic battle and incorporate them all into a role-playing game their leader created. They end up taking over Magy’s apartment and drawing her into the dangerous game, and the game itself affects the people they project adversarial qualities onto, making them attack.

Do you have to travel much concerning your book(s)? 

T. I don’t travel to research or do readings, but I’ve lived a lot of places in my life. I used to live a more domestic, academic life, teaching in-person at universities. Then, I took off into the world of adventures, and I did that to a large degree because I wanted to truly live, to face life without anything sheltering me from it. I could write more meaningful work that way and not just draw from constrained experiences.

Who designed the covers?

I design my covers, and in this case, I bought images from Dreamstime of water and the couple and added some literal steam from the water. The couple on the book cover inspired me with the characters. I love them.

What was the hardest part of writing your book and the major lessons you learned?

I had to open up fully to the desire for lasting love, satisfying romance, heated sensuality, the intensity of infatuation with someone exquisite. To do so, I listened to the kind of music that is aching, mournfully longing, sexually powerful – neo-psych rock. I couldn’t hide from my deepest feelings when I was listening to that music. When I went back later to make the playlist for it on Pinterest, it opened me up again. That’s emotionally raw.

I learned how overwhelmingly strongly I still feel about someone whom I’ve always loved but can’t be with, someone I may have wounded, which bothers me to no end, someone who is there waiting at the center of my soul when I write a book that tears it open. People imagine writing books as being a calm, distanced event, I suppose, but authors get in touch with our most haunting feelings to write.

Do you have any advice for other writers? 

Never launch into long expository backstory until you’ve earned the right to do so. To earn it, engage reader with action. Create mysteries they hanker to know the answers to, and only then provide some answers with the expository backstory.